Philippine president signs historic bills into laws

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Without fanfare, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III signed the reproductive health (RH) bill into law last December 21. It was signed together with the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act.

The highly contentious RH law provides "universal access" to reproductive health services and supplies such as contraceptives.

Unimpeachable administration sources confirmed to the Inquirer late Friday an initial report from House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II that the measure had been signed by Aquino in the Palace before the four-day long weekend began, four days after it was passed by both chambers of Congress amid staunch opposition from the Roman Catholic hierarchy and prolife organisations.

The measure is now known as Republic Act No. 10354.

A member of the President's inner circle, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, however issued an unequivocal confirmation to the Inquirer.

"I think RH has been signed, but I'm not sure when," said Abad in a text message at 9:17pm on Friday.

A Senate staff member said by phone that Aquino said he did not want "fanfare, so that it won't be a controversy anymore."

"It should be Malaca?ang (Palace) that should announce it, not us," said the staff member of a senator who voted for the passage of the measure. The staff asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Earlier Friday, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte had been evasive when asked to confirm or deny speculations, which had been rife since last week, that the bill had been signed.

"We haven't been advised yet by the Office of Executive Secretary or OES (Paquito) Ochoa. Allow me to explain also what happens (when a bill is up for the president's signature).

"When the president signs a bill into law, it gets sent to the Office of the Executive Secretary for the RA (Republic Act) number, and for processing," she said, referring to the process in which a signed copy of the law would be stamped with a barcode and go through "other validation".

The task of announcing the enactment into law of the controversial measure fell on the lap of Valte during her regular interview with state-run Radyo ng Bayan at noon on Saturday.

Although Aquino signed the measure before the close of office hours on December 21, it took "some time" before the private office of the President and the Office of the Executive Secretary completed the process, said the administration sources.

Not to antagonise Church

"The reason the Palace is announcing it (Saturday) is because it took sometime to process it, and the Palace didn't want to (antagonise) anti-RH people during the Christmas holiday season," said one source.

"The bill had to be processed after signing," said the other source, saying that the process had been completed on December 27, giving Palace officials a day or two to announce it.

The sources confirmed that the Aquino administration was trying to avoid yet another confrontation with the Catholic Church in the run up to Christmas.

"The understanding was to announce it tomorrow, precisely, to avoid this (complication)," said the source.

The source was referring to an agreement to allow the Palace to make the announcement ahead of the House of Representatives. This, however, had not been followed.

Aquino could not be reached for official comment. He and Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras are scheduled to return to the Palace on Saturday after a four-day vacation in the summer capital.

House Majority Leader Gonzales confirmed the signing on Friday night, saying the measure officially became a law "without fanfare".

The president was credited for providing a belated push to the RH bill, which was facing stiff opposition in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

He certified the bill as urgent soon after it was passed on second reading at the House, allowing the Senate to pass it on second and third readings on the same day.

Cornerstone

The cornerstone of RA 10354 is the State guarantee on "universal access to medically-safe, non-abortifacient, effective, legal, affordable, and quality reproductive health care services, methods devices, supplies."

But it comes with the condition that they should not "prevent the implantation of the fertilised ovum as determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)."

It also defines "reproductive health" as the "state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and process."

"This implies that people are able to have a responsible, safe, consensual and satisfying sex life, that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to do so," it adds.

An apparent compromise with anti-RH bill lawmakers is the guarantee that "reproductive health rights do not include abortion, and access to abortifacients".

RA 10354 defines abortifacients as "any drug or device that induces abortion or the destruction of a foetus inside the mother's womb, or the prevention of the fertilised ovum to reach and be implanted in the mother's womb upon determination by the FDA."

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